Happy 4th of July to all of our readers out there. In honor of our Independence Day and the fact the weather is calling for a continuation of the heat wave that is consuming the Northeast with temps in the mid-to-high 90s with the heat index of well over 100 degrees, I plan on being a lazy bones today and sit in the air conditioning all day and watch a list of appropriate films for the day.

About dusk, we’ll grill some steaks that have been marinating all day, give a birthday wish to the Bulldog (her papers say English but her birthday is American as they come), and then watch the town fireworks from our front lawn, since they’re only a block away.

Since we’re not expecting company until about 8 p.m. I don’t have to worry about putting on a film fest for all types, it is a military-themed (what did you expect?) group of films with a couple of Revolutionary War flicks thrown in to fall in with the whole spirit of the holiday.

So, since this is my list and I am watching in my house, my five Independence Day Holiday Film fest features are as follows:

  1. Northwest Passage: 1940 Starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, and Walter Brennan. Filmed in Technicolor. Shot on location in Oregon and Idaho, Northwest Passage was a big budget film shot in 1939 and depicts Rogers Rangers moving against the French and Indians in what was supposed to be New Hampshire and Canada.

Gorgeously shot in Technicolor, this was the era of the big movie studios and Tracy as Robert Rogers was fantastic as he leads his Rangers against the Abenaki Indians. Today, the depiction of the Native Americans in this film was awful, although it correctly displayed the American colonists’ views of the Indians at that time.

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The action scene where the Rangers attack the Abenaki village, done long before the days of CGI was one of the best film action sequences of the big studio era and the Rangers are shown using muskets and tomahawks as they would have in that era. The uniforms are much more realistic as well with the Rangers favoring the green tops and bottoms that blended into the New Hampshire landscape.

There is a particularly gruesome scene that was way ahead of its time in 1939. A Ranger loses his mind while laughing maniacally and clutching something wrapped up in his ruck. He keeps repeating to the other Rangers if they were smart they wouldn’t have to eat parched corn. After crawling behind a large boulder. Rogers follows and finds him eating the head of an Indian.

Tracy and the lead actors didn’t use stunt doubles in another excellent scene where the Rangers must make a human chain to cross a raging river. The only issue with the film is the title. The Northwest Passage mission is given to Rogers at the very end of the film, as they initially planned on a sequel. If you’ve never seen this film, do yourself a favor and check it out.

  1. Kelly’s Heroes, 1970, Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Don Rickles, and Carroll O’Connor, filmed 30 years later, this satirical look at the stupidity and waste in the war set in the backdrop of World War II in Europe turns into a caper film and a dark comedy.

Eastwood is Kelly, a former officer who was given the order to attack a hill held by Americans and is busted to private. He captures a German colonel and while getting him cocked on good brandy in order to get military information, he learns the Colonel is in charge of a shipment of gold bullion being shipped to Germany.

Kelly assembles a wacky cast of characters including a whacked-out tank commander in Donald Sutherland who seems more like a hippie in the 1960s than a tanker with three Sherman tanks under his command. OddBall,(Sutherland) has a group of troops who more resemble pirates than armor soldiers. Crapgame (Don Rickles) is a black market profiteer of a supply sergeant who crawls out of his hole only when he smells a profit.

The crew of Kelly’s along with OddBall’s tanks goes 30 miles behind enemy lines to hit a bank guarded by three German Tiger tanks and a company of infantry. It is being held in a bank. The men plan on hitting the bank, splitting up the gold and getting back before their hair-brained commander CPT Maitland, even realizes they are gone.

Things go horribly awry when General Colt (O’Connor) gets intel reports that his troops are conducting a breakthrough deep behind enemy lines and gets his entire army chasing the men, thinking that they’re hard chargers and not bank robbers.

One German SS Tank Commander holds out in the center of town. Two Shermans are destroyed and the other, OddBall’s is broken down. Crapgame, who was wounded tells Big Joe (Savalas) and Kelly, “make a deal.” Big Joe asks, “What kind of a deal?” Crapgame smiles, “a deal, deal. Maybe the guy is a Republican.”

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Kelly makes a deal with the SS tank commander after a classic Sergio Leone moment when the Americans walk up to the tank like the OK Corral, complete with spaghetti western music. The SS tanker had no idea he was guarding gold and the Americans and Germans depart as friends and much richer moments before the American Army and General Colt (a caricature of General Patton) arrive in town.

  1. The Patriot, 2000, Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Tom Wilkinson, this one was filmed in South Carolina  30 years after Kelly Heroes….hmm noticing a trend here? Our second Revolutionary War film and historically,  a farce, however as a Revolutionary War action film, it was excellently done. Gibson is Benjamin Martin, a former officer who fought for the British during the French and Indian War. His massacre of the Indians that is alluded to in the film makes him a pacifist with the Revolution approaching. His character is loosely (very loosely) based on Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox.

His baser instincts return and he joins the “Cause” after his young son is murdered by the evil Colonel Tavington expertly played by Isaacs. I had the pleasure of working on another war film with him (Green Zone) and Isaacs explained he gets these type of roles “because I can play a perfect prick” with ease. The British officers are all mindless fops or bloodthirsty murderers. My Brit friends hate the way they are depicted in this film, which is a staple in Gibson’s films. And they have good reason to.

General Cornwallis was nicely done by the outstanding character actor Tom Wilkinson. Cornwallis is trying to sweep the Rebels out of the Carolinas so that he can join the battle against Washington farther north.

The battle scenes are bloody and the violence in this one is quite graphic and not recommended for the younger crowd, especially when Martin tomahawks a group of English soldiers holding his son prisoner.  Forget the obvious gaffes on the history and get lost in a period action film and enjoy great performances by Gibson, Isaacs, and Wilkinson.

Another interesting tidbit. About 9 years after this was made, I had the opportunity to work with Wilkinson in Israel on a spy film about the Mossad, “The Debt” with Helen Mirren. He was a very down-to-earth personable man and when we got on the subject of the Patriot, he told me that he’s never seen it.

Soon after filming was completed, he signed up for a film in Asia which ran much longer than envisioned so he missed the premiere. When he finished that film project, he quickly did a few others and he said, the next thing he knew, the film was far back in his mind. When recounting some of his scenes, including the ones with Isaacs, he laughed and said, “you remember those lines much better than I do, so I will have to get a copy of that and watch it now.”

  1. Independence Day, 1996, Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Randy Quaid is a cliche-filled, Red, White and Blue flag-waving extravaganza. The script was singularly awful but the star of the film is the action and especially the gorgeous special effects which raise this from a pot-boiler to a must-see action film. But hey how the hell can you be watching a July 4th film fest and not have this one in there.

The characters are straight out of comic books with the resultant cliched lines. “Today is our Independence Day!” where a wimpy President (Pullman) who used to be a hot-shot fighter jock flies the assault against those bad aliens. A worse line by Harry Connick Jr. in a small part, “They won’t let fly the Space Shuttle if you marry a stripper.” Ugh, but for every cliche and stereotypical character, there are those awesome action scenes which 22 years later, still stand the test of time.

Randy Quaid, as the boozy, crop duster pilot who flew in Nam and was taken by the aliens is typically hilarious. “Hello, boys….I’mmmmmmmm Baaaaaack!” This film has to be included in any 4th of July list despite the issues with the film itself. And there can only be one other film more apt for the 4th of July.

  1. Gettysburg, 1993, Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, Richard Jordan, Sam Elliott, Stephen Lang, C. Thomas Howell This sweeping epic was a meticulously done Civil War film was a marathon (258 minutes) that will keep you riveted to your seat for the entire thing. There were none of the old cliches seen in this film.

Wonderfully crafted by the book, “The Killer Angels” the main characters from the book and the key players on both the Union and Confederate sides come to life. Jeff Daniels is outstanding as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the theology professor from Maine who leads the 20th Maine to hold the end of the Union line on Little Round Top on the second day of the battle and may have possibly saved the Union on that day.

Chamberlain’s men held off several assaults by Confederate forces intent on taking that hill. Now exhausted, outnumbered and out of ammunition, Chamberlain rallies his men and leads them on a charge down the hill and breaks up the attack for good.

Tom Berenger is very good as General Longstreet who tries unsuccessfully to talk General Robert E. Lee out of making that final brutal frontal assault. Lee played by Martin Sheen was arguably the most wooden of the cast. But his men who would follow him thru the gates of hell itself cover up whatever flaws his characterization produced.

Richard Jordan, as General Lewis Armistead gave arguably the best performance of his life and his last. He died of a brain tumor shortly after filming. Armistead is torn between his loyalty to his army and his state and the vow he made to his best friend, Winfield Scott Hancock the commander of the Union troops facing his, that if he ever raised a hand against Hancock, may God strike him dead. Armistead leads the Confederate advance during Pickett’s charge and makes the furthest advance of the charge, “the high water mark” of the Confederacy.

The film was beautifully filmed and used thousands of extras from the countless Civil War reenactors who are decked out perfectly down the buttons on their uniforms, in realism that Hollywood only dreams of producing.

While we marvel at the bravery and courage of the men of both sides, the horror and the awful cost of the war, using outmoded Napoleonic tactics are all too common here. Over 51,000 men became casualties in just three days of fighting.

This was a great war film and was expertly done. Filmed on location in Gettysburg, PA, it gets all of the things we usually find fault in most war films right. They don’t waste their time with the old cliches. This was as accurate a war film that you’ll find.  Pop it in the DVD and enjoy.

Photos: Wikipedia